During the centenary of the First World War more and more attention has been paid to the role that animals played in the conflict. The tone is often celebratory, which overlooks how animals could cause conflict between army commanders and soldiers in the trenches. The pet dogs of poilus, as French soldiers were known, lays this tension bare.

 

 

The French army mobilized dogs for various purposes: first aid, messenger, ratting and sentry duty. But it sought to crack down on soldiers’ informal adoptions of dogs as pets. From 1917 the army required all soldiers who kept a dog for operational reasons to register their animal with the War Dogs Service. The registered dog was only to be used in accordance with their training and should not be allowed to ‘stray’ or play with anyone.[1] Hygiene considerations once again motivated army commanders, especially the threat of rabies, a disease that they believed was triggered by the numerous stray dogs who wandered through the army zone.[2]

The army also strove to discipline soldiers who kept trained rescue and other militarized dogs as pets.[3] However, the boundaries between search and rescue, messenger, sentry and transport, ratting and pet dogs were often porous. Photographs of ratters show the important work that the dogs did in killing rats, but also hint at the bonds that developed with soldiers and their dogs.

Soldiers also expressed love for the rescue dogs who had saved their lives. One wounded stretcher bearer trapped under a collapsed parapet related how a rescue dog, Domino, discovered him and fetched help: ‘How could I not love him…?’ (Comment voudriez-vous que je ne l’aime pas…).[4]

The distinction between stray and pet dogs also became murky. Dogs were one of many domestic or wild animals that soldiers met and kept as they passed through the army zone. These included cats, goats and sheep, as well as birds and other wild creatures whose habitats the conflict had swallowed up. Many soldiers befriended strays as they wandered through the militarized environment seeking company and food.[5] Welcomed by poilus, dogs made themselves at home in the devastated trench environment.

Yet the army again attempted to banish pet dogs from the trenches. In December 1917 it banned all dogs who had ‘no military purpose.’ But to perhaps prevent a storm of protest from troops in the aftermath of the 1917 mutinies, it allowed soldiers to keep hold of their pets until their next period of leave when they could be taken home.[6]

 

Pet dogs offered poilus emotional comfort and solace in an alienating and lethal environment. As novelist and soldier Pierre Dumarchey recalled, even the ‘hardest [soldiers] softened in front’ of their animals.[7] The sense of shared experiences and companionship turned to grief and worry at times of separation. Chaplain “René B” felt moved by the death of his dog César: ‘I must confess that I cried when [he] died.’[8] Their attachment towards their dogs led some soldiers to resist official army regulations. After the 1917 crackdown on pet dogs some went to great lengths to take their dogs with them as they moved through the trenches.[9] When confronted with such indiscipline the army separated many pet dogs from their owners and returned them to the Society for the Protection of Animals refuge in Paris. Yet the SPA was unable to cope with the sheer number of dogs it received from front lines and slaughtered many of them.[10]

The politics of poilus’ petkeeping shows that amidst the attention paid to animals’ role in the First World War (and other conflicts) we need to bear in mind the competing visions of the appropriate place of animals on front lines, and the conflicts and resistance that can ensue.

[1] Archives nationales de France, 181 AQ/121 Fonds Gaston Gradis, ‘Livret matricule de chien,’ [n.d.].

[2] Stray dogs considered to have ‘incurable maladies’ were to be killed in army kennels. SHD-DAT 19 N 32 Général commandant en chef des armées du nord et du nord-est, 6 November 1917; SHD-DAT 19 N 32 Général commandant en chef des armées du nord et du nord-est, 14 December 1917.

[3] Service historique de la Défense, Département de l’armée de terre (hereafter SHD-DAT) 16 N 261 Président du Conseil Ministre de la Guerre to Général Commandant en Chef les Armées du Nord et du Nord-Est, 18 November 1918.

[4] Raymond L…, 6 March 1918, Le chien sanitaire, les chiens de guerre (Paris, 1919), 99.

[5] Eric Baratay, Bêtes des tranchées: des vécus oubliés (Paris, 2013), 140, 147-9.

[6] SHD-DAT 19 N 32 Général commandant en chef, Grand quartier général des armées du Nord et du Nord-Est, ‘Note no. 9.051,’ 9 December 1917.

[7] Pierre Dumarchey [Pierre Mac Orlan, pseud.], Verdun (Paris, 1935), 142.

[8] René B…, 10 May 1917, Chien sanitaire, les chiens de guerre, 100.

[9] Baratay, Bêtes des tranchées, 151.

[10] ‘Séance mensuelle du 20 juin 1918,’ Bulletin de la Société protectrice des animaux, April-September 1918, 155.